Havana has been dubbed the city of columns. For me, it was the city of tripping hazards! I’d have loved to peer upwards to view those Ionian columns, but if I took my eyes off the pavement for a nano-second, I’d fall over an upturned sidewalk or tumble into an open manhole or step in dog poop or horse dung, which I did once, in flip-flops no less. Everything’s askew; everything’s on the verge of crumbling. It’s like walking on a slanted, moving floor of a carnival’s funhouse.
I’ve heard Americans urge: “Go now. See the place before it changes – before it becomes like every other tourist destination in the Caribbean.” They act as if this city will be restored to its previous splendor overnight. “Not so fast,” I’d reply sadly. “The infrastructure is ruined.” For instance, you can’t flush tissue down a commode. It will cause a major blockage. You can’t drink tap water because it is unfiltered, and it will cause the opposite of a major blockage. Everywhere there is an uneasy sense, a foreboding sense, a “dis-ease,” a feeling of impending doom of apocalyptic proportions.
I didn’t see children begging. I did see the elderly with outstretched hands. Most were black. One elderly white man, skin and bones, scavenged through one large, metal, green garbage container after another. I gave him one “CUC,” and he grinned gratefully at me with a footlong stream of drool hanging from his lower lip. One CUC is about a dollar for us, but it is 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) for them, and they can buy a lot of food in the open market with their local peso currency. Foreigners are not supposed to use the local currency. We must trade with the Cuban Convertible Currency, the CUC. We were advised to exchange our greenbacks at the airport because it is difficult to find places to exchange American dollars or Euros elsewhere. If you have Euros, you get a better rate than if you exchange dollars.
The Cuban gals who work at the airport aren’t friendly; they wear black, lacy stockings with designs, making them look like streetwalkers. We were instructed not to take pictures at the airport and told that the government sometimes takes folks’ cameras away if they snap a photo. I really wanted to photograph the cute Cocker Spaniels that were sniffing everyone’s luggage. These drug dogs were well trained, affectionate and loyal to their handlers. One even rode on his soldier’s back. Cubans and their dogs seem to have an unusually close bond. Even the “street dogs” seem non-aggressive and polite, like the beggars. The mendicants are pesky in tailing you but always courteous. They’re not addled by drugs like the menacing, homeless beggars of San Francisco, California. The Cubans are nice, nicer than those you run into at the Miami airport, but it may be because these islanders are desperate for help. It’s like the expression: When you’re in a deep well, you reach to grab any hand extended to you. Beggars can’t be choosers.
In the Miami airport, Cubans wait in serpentine queues with their belongings wrapped in thick Saran wrap. We Americans were escorted through a different way because we were part of a tour – a People to People Cultural Exchange; we were not on our own. They are cautious – the Cubans. They are afraid things will get stolen. They bring back TVs, fenders, huge automobile replacement parts. They have to procure spare parts for their ‘30s classics. Everything is jerry-rigged. Watching the behemoth–like Cadillacs zooming down the street in front of the Malecon, that long sea wall, may seem “enchanting” to Anthony Bourdain as he said in his CNN special On Parts Unknown, but, on a sultry night with oppressive humidity, it isn’t “enchanting” for that guy lying on his back on the dirty pavement, under the chassis of his unwieldy car, in the middle of traffic trying to get his ride to work. He’s on a busy street. Folks go around him. It is routine.
Cubans can’t trust the banks. They have no savings. A rainy day fund is a foreign concept. They live hand to mouth – not only the laborers but the professionals too. A professor at a university gets paid 35 CUCs per month. One confided to us that to run her air conditioning wall unit in her apartment costs more than her entire month’s salary. She lives on the second floor with her husband. Below her landing are her folks. In another apartment of the house reside her uncle and her sister and her sis’s husband. They feel lucky to own a house with so many floors, built by their grandpa before the Revolution.
Educated people, proud people, hard-working people live in rack and ruin in Cuba. One is paid next to nothing, but there’s nothing to buy. You wait in line for 25 minutes to buy a soda and a packet of cookies at what they call a grocery store. Mostly they shop at open air markets. Flies surround the fruits and vegetables and swarm the meat hanging in the sultry breeze. It is October and stinking hot!
If you want a good meal, don’t eat at the government-run hotels. The food is lousy. You are served potatoes, rice and something that looks like the Hawaiian poi – tasteless and white. Raul has only very recently allowed family-run restaurants called paladars. Here you dine on red snapper, a salad and flan. They serve mojitos and beer called Cristal or Bucanero and even wine, but not good wine. This is not how Cubans eat. It would cost them a month’s salary to feast at a paladar.
Eager to return to The States, I felt thankful my ancestors had the good sense to come here centuries ago. I’m grateful that subsequent generations haven’t blown a good thing – this dreamland! Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until you travel and see what others don’t have that you take for granted.